The Senate’s Tax Man
Albert Einstein once said the hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax. If this is true, then Mark Prater JD’84 must be a genius. Prater, chief tax counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, has spent the past 15 years maneuvering his way through the political relativity of tax law in Washington.
Prater was instrumental in ferrying President Bush’s tax-cut package through the Senate Finance Committee in 2001. “It was a watershed bill with across-the-board rate reductions,” he explained. “It brought changes in family tax relief, retirement security, education, and estate and gift taxes — broad-based changes.” As majority chief tax counsel, Prater played a critical role in planning how to “set the table” for the Senate’s review of the package. “We planned the Senate’s review of all the major tax reform issues and set up hearings on their components,” he explained. He added that much of his time was spent analyzing reform issues and advising the Finance Committee chairman on the benefits and drawbacks of each.
An attorney and a certified public accountant, Prater said his love of “the orderliness of numbers” is inherited. His father, now retired, was an accountant and systems analyst. “My father’s work really interested me,” he said. “We have lots of numbers people on both sides of my family. I’m a product of those genes.” Following in his father’s footsteps, the third-generation Portlander enrolled in the accounting program at Portland State University, his parents’ alma mater. After earning his undergraduate degree, he turned his attention to law school.
When deciding which school to attend, Prater said he received a lot of advice from people in Portland about which of the three Oregon law schools would suit him best. “The word from other people was that Willamette was better for students interested in business and taxation,” he said. “Among those in the Portland law community, Willamette has a good reputation.” Prater said he chose Willamette because he believed it would teach him “the practical side of the law” and because the Research and Writing Program was known to be strong.
For Prater, studying law at Willamette proved to be the perfect intersection of his interests in tax law, accounting and public policy. “I’ve always been focused on the policy side of law,” he said. “I remember when I was writing my admission essay for Willamette, I talked about tax policy issues that interested me — why certain tax rules are there and how they fit into the law. Those topics still interest me.” Following his first and second years of law school, Prater clerked for a Portland litigator, where he gained valuable experience in business law and judicial proceedings.
Prater graduated from the College of Law in 1984, then moved back to Portland to begin his legal career. After practicing with Touche Ross for two years and earning his CPA license, he enrolled in the University of Florida’s LLM program in taxation. “It was a great time to study tax law,” he said, “because the 1986 Tax Reform Act substantially changed the tax code.” After completing his degree, Prater returned to Portland to practice tax law with Dunn, Carney et al. He remained with the firm for three years before moving to Washington, D.C., to pursue his longtime interest in public policy.
Prater initially joined the minority staff of the Senate Finance Committee under Bob Packwood of Oregon. “I wanted to work inside the policy-making arena in Washington,” he said, explaining the move to Washington. “I figured I would be there about two years, but the bug kind of bites you. You have a chance to participate in making policy and advising on ideas, on molding them into law. That’s a great opportunity.”
Since 1990 Prater has served three committee chairmen, whose power has shifted with each major election. He currently works on the majority staff of Chairman Charles Grassley, a republican from Iowa. As senior counsel to Senator Grassley, Prater said his primary responsibility is to advise the Finance Committee and present options on legislative issues. “When the committee works on a project, it is important to know all aspects of what they are considering,” he explained. “I talk to folks and reminded them, ‘We’re making law here.’ You don’t want to do something unless you know all the consequences.”
That diligence has served Prater well in Washington, where he has learned to wade through murky political waters unscathed. “In politics, people need to understand what is going on and where everyone stands on an issue,” he said. “You need to know early on, ‘Are you with me or against me?’” Prater said that knowledge comes partly from training — presenting issues, explaining issues and learning to take some heat — and partly from expecting the unexpected. Despite all his experience, Prater said he is still surprised by something every day.
“Washington has always been partisan at times,” he explained. “But in the Senate, if you don’t have 60 votes, nothing happens. Since the 2000 elections, the majority knows better where it should assert its status and when to compromise. Over time you get a feeling for how things are going to play out — and you get a sense of humor about it.”
Although Prater still considers Portland his home, he has no immediate plans to leave his position with the Finance Committee. He said his job is the perfect convergence of accounting and law. “It’s a great job for a tax lawyer because we’re taught to figure out the rules,” he said. “In this job, you get to figure out how the rules will be shaped. There’s no other job like that. Making the rules in tax is a unique responsibility.”
Mark Prater JD’84
“I chose Willamette because I believed it would teach me 'the practical side of the law' and because the Research and Writing Program was known to be strong.”